Joseph Mallord William Turner

Compositional, Colour and Underpainting Study for ‘Plymouth’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 303 x 487 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 150

Catalogue entry

This preliminary study for Turner’s Ports of England design of Plymouth sets out both the composition and the complex structures of colour and tone for the final work (Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal).1 Like the finished watercolour Turner depicts the view near Mount Batten Point looking across Cattewater towards Plymouth Citadel.
The Turner scholar Eric Shanes has examined this study thoroughly for its colouristic arrangement and its relation to the final work. He writes:
The centre of this study was originally covered with a broad wash of yellow. When that had dried, the contours of the distant skyline were defined by overwashes of mauve and blue, and the rainbow was probably taken out with a damp, clean brush. A fundamental tonal reversal was effected in the final watercolour. Here the sky on the left is very dark, with the round fort on Mount Batten Point only slightly lighter in tone than its background, while the sky on the right is only darker than the rainbow in places. In the subsequent work Turner greatly strengthened the dazzling visual impact of the rainbow by wholly darkening the sky around it and lightening the sky on the left, with sunlight just catching the fort. There too the hillside beneath the fort extends further into the harbour, and the edge of its cliff is far less vertical in profile.2
Turner had previously pictured Mount Batten at Plymouth for the Southern Coast series in around 1816 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) (see Tate impressions T04388, T05973, T05397).3 He knew the area well, making a number of preparatory sketches which can be found in the Ivy Bridge to Penzance sketchbook of 1811 (Tate D08866, D08869, D08874, D08878, D08879; Turner Bequest CXXV 2, 4, 9, 11a, 12) and the Plymouth, Hamoaze sketchbook of about 1812 to 1813 (Tate D09249; Turner Bequest CXXXI 30).
Despite Turner’s manifest knowledge of the area, the engraver Thomas Lupton (who subsequently produced the Plymouth mezzotint for the Ports series) claimed that Turner based the design for the original drawing (and thus presumably also for this preparatory study of it) on a sketch by Samuel Cousins R.A. ‘whose sketch-book [Lupton] lent Turner for the purpose’.4
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.388, no.760.
Shanes 1997, p.51, no.27.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.352, no.457.
John Ruskin in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds.), Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume XIII: Turner: The Harbours of England; Catalogues and Notes, London 1904, p.55.

Alice Rylance-Watson
March 2013

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